BEIRUT – The Syrian army said Thursday it has begun withdrawing from a city at the heart of the country's uprising, but the regime expanded its crackdown elsewhere by deploying soldiers and arresting hundreds ahead of a new wave of anti-government protests.
The siege on Daraa — the southern city where Syria's six-week-old uprising began — lasted 11 days with President Bashar Assad unleashing tanks and snipers to crush dissent there. Syria's state-run media said the military had "carried out its mission in detaining terrorists" and restored calm in Daraa.
Still, an activist who has been giving The Associated Press updates from Daraa cast doubt on the army claim. The activist, who left Daraa early Thursday, said residents were reporting that tanks and troops were still in the city.
The accounts could not be independently confirmed and telephone calls to Daraa were not going through.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Thursday a U.N. humanitarian team will be going to Daraa in the coming days following a phone appeal by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Assad.
Even as the army said it was pulling out of Daraa, military units were deploying elsewhere, including around the coastal town of Banias that is home to one of Syria's two oil refineries, witnesses said. Four armored personnel carriers, several tanks and a bus carrying soldiers had been spotted.
"The situation is very worrying," a Banias resident said Thursday, asking that his name not be published out of fear for his personal safety. Hundreds of families were fleeing the area in case Banias also comes under siege.
Also Thursday, a human rights activist said Syrian security forces conducted a major raid in a suburb of the capital, Damascus, detaining more than 200 people.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the raid in the Saqba neighborhood occurred in the early hours of Thursday after authorities cut telecommunications in the area.
Assad is determined to crush the revolt, which was inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and has now become the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year dynasty.
Assad has tried a combination of brute force, intimidation and promises of reform to quell the unrest, but his attempts have failed so far.
Security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters during rallies around the country, including in the northern city of Hama, where amateur video captured the sound of heavy gunfire last week as men yelled and ran for cover. Later, the same video showed a nighttime candlelight march.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. continues to "press Assad's regime to desist in its violent behavior."
"We abhor the violence there," Toner told reporters. "I think I called it barbaric, the measures that were taken the other day against the citizens of Daraa, and we urge Syria to end these kinds of actions against innocent civilians who are simply expressing their aspirations for a democratic future."
Syrian activists were planning to take to the streets again on Friday, the main day for protests in the Arab world, for what they are calling a "Day of Defiance."
More than 550 people have been killed since security forces began cracking down on the protests. Scores of soldiers have also been reported killed.
The mounting death toll — and the siege in Daraa — has only served to embolden protesters who are now demanding nothing less than the downfall of Assad's regime. There has also been growing international condemnation of the government's tactics.
The United States and Italy warned Syria it will face penalties and increasing isolation if it does not halt its violent crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Syria had to know that there would be "consequences for this brutal crackdown."
Speaking at press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, Clinton said the U.S. is looking at boosting sanctions it has already imposed on Syrian leaders. Frattini said Italy would support similar measures by the European Union.
Syria blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy and "terrorist groups" that it says have taken advantage of protests.
The uprising in Syria was sparked by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Daraa. Protests spread quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.
Assad inherited power from his father in 2000.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue